Kopp and Rebel Sect

A 'cult-like' fringe Roman Catholic group worshipped with accused doctor-killer James Kopp until his arrest in France 10 days ago

The Hamilton Spectator/April 7, 2001
By Susan Clairmont And Joan Walters

A rebel Roman Catholic sect which considers government and those supporting abortion to be "the devil" played a major part in James Charles Kopp's life on the run.

A former Canadian member of the ex-communicated Society of St. Pius X says the priests Kopp worshipped with in Ireland, and then fled to in France, are "fanatics and zealots.

"It is a cult-like mentality," says the Toronto-area man who does not wish to be named. "Anyone who is against us is the devil. Government is the devil because it encourages abortion."

An American cult expert says the society "is a group I've had very, very serious complaints about."

It is "an extremely controlling and legalistic group and very extreme," said Rick Ross, who deprograms members from a wide range of cults, including the militant anti-abortion group called Missionaries to the Pre-Born.

The Irish head of the Society of St. Pius X says no one in his order ever provided sanctuary to Kopp. The order did not help him evade police and, in fact, did not even realize the man they knew as Timothy O'Brien was one of the world's most wanted men.

But the society confirms the American fugitive chose its Dublin area church for worship during his life on the lam in Ireland, and attended mass at a St. Pius X monastery after he fled to France.

A radical anti-abortion activist, Kopp was wanted in connection with sniper attacks on five North American abortion providers, including the October 1998 fatal shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Amherst, N.Y. and a November 1995 attack on Ancaster's Dr. Hugh Short which paralysed his right arm.

Kopp was arrested in Dinan, a medieval French tourist town, on March 29 after a 28-month manhunt. He had been hiding in Ireland for a year but fled March 10 or 11, possibly by ferry to England and then on to France.

Kopp joined the order's church in Dun Laoghaire, a seaport south of Dublin, when he arrived in Ireland around the spring of 2000. The 46-year-old -- whom the brothers knew as a good and pious man -- was simply a parishioner.

"The society always opens its doors to everyone," said Rev. Louis Dubroeucq, head of St. Pius X in Ireland.

He said the order never helped Kopp, never gave him money, and never let him stay at their priory in the port town of Dun Laoghaire, 10 kilometres south of Dublin, where it offered mass in Latin at a former Protestant church.

The order also has a church near Cork, on the southern seacoast, where Kopp went once or twice to do renovation work.

Both churches are within easy reach of local ferry docks -- the one in Dun Laoghaire the base for crowded high-speed Sea Cats to Holyhead on the northwest coast of Wales, the one near Cork directly to the northern coast of France.

Dubroeucq said he does not believe Kopp committed killings or shootings. He was a pious, reverent man.

"It's possible he's wrongly accused," Dubroeucq said. "Some newspapers speak about refuge by fundamentalist churches and it's wrong."

The order did not know of Kopp's real identity until police visited the order two weeks after the accused sniper fled to France. Last weekend, the Irish priests issued a notice to parishioners pointing out no one in the church ever knew Kopp's real name or that he was a fugitive.

Dubroeucq confirmed he learned Kopp took mass at Prieure Ste. Anne outside Dinan in the days before he was arrested at the Dinan post office.

"I know he did not stay there or receive help there because I inquired," Dubroeucq said. "He did not ask anything of us." But Kopp clearly relied spiritually on the society.

Although it is impossible to know, the brothers may have even absolved him of the criminal acts he is alleged to have committed in North America and guided him through the penance that would have been required.

Kopp was raised a Catholic, and in 1984 he spent a year in South America as a missionary for the California-based Wycliffe Bible Society. He has been driven by religion most of his life.

An FBI affidavit on Kopp unsealed last week shows Kopp as so obsessed with religion that he once wrote a letter to God about his spiritual mission in life. He notes in the 1993 letter that a pathologist had shown him an aborted fetus.

"Up until then, I had done all the usual things, writing letters to politicians, letters to the editor, etc. etc. But I think in that cold, frozen moment my soul said back to God: 'We'll do more. We'll drag Kopp kicking and screaming if we have to.'"

Kopp's letter notes that "only later did the effects of it come out."

Absolution would have been imperative for someone so focused on his faith, says Roberto Perrin, a York University history professor who specializes in Catholicism.

It would be very important for Kopp to be able to accept communion and "he couldn't possibly go to communion without confessing his sins to someone."

Perrin says Kopp may have chosen to worship with the sect knowing that he was likely to be absolved by a church which shared his strong anti-abortion views.

The sect believes "you want to prevent evil and the ultimate evil is an abortion."

French police say they believe there was a connection between Kopp's presence in the Dinan area and the St. Pius X order, but cannot confirm it.

Nor is there any proof that Kopp had any connection with the order's churches located in or very near to each of the North American cities where the five abortion doctors were shot.

Still, the coincidence is startling.

Most cities in Canada and the U.S. do not have Society of St. Pius X churches and yet one is just a short drive away from each of the crime scenes in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ancaster, Buffalo and Rochester.

Father Carl Sulzen, who lives at the society's priory in Toronto and travels every Sunday to St. Catharines to conduct mass there, says it is unfair for anyone to condemn the society because Kopp chose to worship at its churches.

"Many great criminals have been Catholic. It shouldn't tarnish the Catholic Church as a whole."

The FBI, which has spearheaded the worldwide search for Kopp, says it is not investigating the sect.

"The nature of our investigation was to find Mr. Kopp," said Paul Moskal, chief divisional counsel for the FBI in Buffalo. "Once he's found, we have no investigative interest in anything outside his prosecution for the (murder) he is to be prosecuted for in the United States."

The FBI arrested two people in New York City last week and charged them with helping Kopp elude police. Despite saying publicly for more than two years -- and as recently as last week -- that the FBI believe there was a large, underground network of supporters assisting Kopp, Moskal now says investigators are not planning to make any further arrests.

A former Toronto-area member of St. Pius, who was studying to be a Roman Catholic priest before joining the sect, says it takes very seriously a duty to provide sanctuary for everyone.

"There is the concept of an underground within the society," he says. "The concept of sanctuary is an old one."

All of the concepts which form the foundation of the society are old.

The society was formed in France in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who rejected all of the modern reforms made to the Roman Catholic Church during the 1960s. Lefebvre rebelled against Rome and continued to conduct mass in Latin with his back to the congregation.

In 1988, Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the approval of the Vatican. For that he was ex-communicated by Rome. To this day, the Vatican does not recognize the Society of St. Pius X, although the society itself still calls itself a Roman Catholic church.

Like the Roman Catholic church, this order is anti-abortion.

The official Roman Catholic church in Ireland, however, says it is worried by increasingly aggressive anti-abortion fringe protests in Ireland. And the church around the world does not accept St. Pius X as a Roman Catholic order.

Not all churches carrying the name Pius X are members of the order. Many Roman Catholic churches and schools around the world are named after Saint Pius X, a fierce opponent of religious modernism, who was pope from 1903-1914.

France has the world's greatest concentration of Society of St. Pius X churches, followed by the U.S. Canada has 41 Society of St. Pius X churches, including Holy Face of Jesus Church in St. Catharines and Church of the Transfiguration in Etobicoke. The order has 400 priests worldwide.

Ross, the American consultant on cults and interventions, has included the society on his Web site of suspect groups. The St. Pius X Society is listed along with the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology.

The former member who lives near Toronto says the society shares many characteristics with a cult. It encourages members to shun anyone who does not approve of the society; it asks its members to turn over money and belongings to the church; it exists as an isolated society.

"Everybody in the world is evil and they encourage us to cut ourselves off from our families," he says.

Roberto Perrin of York University calls it a fringe movement.

"I think Kopp is even on the fringe of that movement," he adds. Priests in Dublin, like Rev. Ernan Neville, regard St. Pius members with contempt.

"They are out of line, persona non grata within the church," said Neville, who believes Kopp attended his University Church from time to time last fall.

The order celebrates mass in Latin, women must have their heads covered and members accept communion on their knees.

In the grey stone church of St. John the Evangelist in Dun Laoghaire, built for Anglicans, images and statues that could not be removed when the society took over are covered.

"No statues, no gilding, none of the circus we see today in Rome," said the elderly caretaker at St. John. He knew Kopp as Timmy O'Brien, who worshipped and helped do repairs around the church.

He said the man was intensely religious, often to the point where he thought it odd. "Sometimes I thought there was something wrong with him," the caretaker said.

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